posted: Nov. 8, 2005  |  Feedback

On Monday morning, there was an e-mail waiting for me from my buddy Gus, who happily reported that he had just won a Broncos Super Bowl at the "All-Madden" level with the passing cones turned on. When the game was released last August, I remember claiming that this feat was impossible, that it couldn't happen, that the passing cones were too tough, that even pinning the Puma in "Nintendo Wrestling" was more realistic. But Gus pulled it off. With a wife and two kids, no less.

By the time the Pats-Colts game rolled around, I was convinced Gus' e-mail was a bad omen. If Manning and the Colts prevailed in Foxborough, after everything that had happened over the last five years, it was just like winning at the All-Madden level with the passing cones on, right?

As it turned out, Gus' accomplishment was considerably more impressive. I spent the last two months trying to figure out this Patriots team, which easily could have been 1-6 without Brady and hadn't played a good all-around game yet. Had there just been too many injuries to too many key guys? Were they worn down from playing 38 games over the past two seasons? Were they playing possum for this game? Why had the defense only forced five turnovers in seven games? Did Belichick know the Patriots had the AFC East pretty much locked up -- whether they won 11 games or 9 -- so he was proceeding accordingly and refusing to rush injured guys back before they were ready? Had the Patriots simply gotten worse and the Colts gotten better? Did the three-time champs have any swagger left?

We found out the answer in the first quarter: Trailing by seven after Indy's opening drive, the Pats had rolled down to the Colts 20 and were facing 4th-and-2. Twenty out of 20 times, teams kick the field goal here and take the points. It's the smart move. It's the only move.

And yet …

Belichick left his offense on the field and went for it. Didn't even think twice.

Sure, the Patriots ended up converting that first down and eventually scoring seven. But Belichick's message was clear: We need all the points we can get; our defense can't stop these guys. And they couldn't. Forty points and a gazillion first downs later, Manning was smiling on the sidelines, his teammates were pretending they liked him, ABC was rolling their fake MasterCard commercial and the fans were pouring out of Gillette Stadium. The torch, for all intents and purposes, had been passed. After four arduous years, various rule changes to help their passing game, and a cream-puff schedule highlighted by a fortuitous bye before last night's game, the Colts (and the NFL) finally got their wish. There was a new alpha dog in the AFC.

Would the game have turned out different if Harrison, Seymour, Light and everyone else had played? Maybe. This Pats season has reached the point where, on Friday afternoon, I was doing an interview with a Boston radio station and they asked me, "Were you surprised that Arturo Freeman was released today?" … and I didn't know what shocked me more, the fact that the previous week's starting safety had been released, or that I was wondering, "Wait, how the hell are we gonna replace Arturo Freeman?" During the first half of Monday night's game, Al Michaels casually said, "Mike Stone in the game for the Patriots," and the cameras showed some dreadlocked dude wearing a No. 24 Pats uniform and playing safety, and I had never heard this man's name or seen him before in my life. Now we were counting on him to help shut down Indy's passing game? Huh?

But enough about the crumbling Pats. Monday night's story was obviously Manning and the Colts, who look like a legitimate threat to go 19-0, with the added bonus that the NFL probably won't have to institute its "Indy gets to use 12 guys on defense and play 16 home games" rule changes that were in the works for 2006. Offensively, the Colts are just about unstoppable now that they're emphasizing ball control over breaking records and winning ESPYs. Defensively, they're better than average. And they have a swagger about them that I can't remember seeing before. On the sidelines in the fourth quarter, Manning was in full John Kreese mode on the sidelines; during the final Doug Flutie drive, you almost expected one of his smiling teammates to scream, "Get 'em a bodybag, yeah!!!!!!!" It was almost enough to make you forget that this was the same guy who admitted on one of those dopey ABC profiles that "Footloose, by Kenny Loggins, best describes me." Almost.

Let's face it: Manning was awesome last night -- made just about every throw, dominated the game in every respect, carried himself like a guy who wasn't allowing his team to lose under any circumstances. Just an awesome performance. He was totally in the zone, just like Kevin Bacon in the "Footloose" scene where Bacon danced his frustrations away in an abandoned flour mill. There was only one time when he looked like the old Manning, right before that interception near the end of the first half, when he flipped out over the delay of game penalty, then tossed an interception on the following play and seemed genuinely rattled -- much like Bacon in the scene when he's thrown off his high school gymnastics team. Unlike other years, his defense immediately got him the ball back (thanks to a crushing Dillon fumble) and Manning orchestrated a beautiful two-minute drive to effectively clinch the game. Because of the quarterbacks involved, last night felt like a tennis match with two guys serving 130 miles-an-hour. In other words, first guy to break serve wins. With that Dillon fumble, followed by the two-minute drive, the Colts broke serve. And they never looked back.

So what happens now? I have always been a firm believer that the NFL season doesn't start until Week 9 or Week 10, mainly because it takes most teams about two months to figure out what they have. For instance, the 2001 Pats started out 5-4, lost a Week 10 game to the Rams and never lost again. With that said, it's hard to imagine anyone touching this Colts team, who have effectively locked up homefield advantage and won't have to play a single playoff outside (unless the Broncos can somehow pass them). More importantly, they exorcised those "Can't beat the Patriots" demons and won't have that storyline hanging over their heads throughout the playoffs (as a Red Sox fan, I know what that feels like). And they should be well-rested from a schedule that could conceivably have them playing three-fourths of their games against non-playoff teams (which makes perfect sense because they were 12-4 last season).

Of course, they still have to win the Super Bowl. I received some interesting e-mails today, mainly from the Indianapolis area, many of them imploring me to have sex with myself, lunch on my own genitals, all that good stuff. And that's fine. I wouldn't have expected anything less. But the fact remains, Monday's victory didn't mean anything in the big scheme of things. Only those three playoff games in January and February matter. In "Footloose," the movie ends with Bacon and his buddies dancing at the prom, and you knew it was headed that way because, after all, it was a movie. In real life, there isn't a script for the 2005 NFL season -- as far as we know -- and the season has a little less than three months to go. You still have to come through when it counts.

And yes, I know Indianapolis hasn't won a title since the Pacers prevailed in the 1973 ABA Finals, so fans there are still feeling this whole winning thing out, and it's easy to mistakenly believe you won the Super Bowl Monday night. But you didn't. Just remember, a lot can happen in three months. Injuries can happen. Bad breaks can happen. Teams can catch you at the wrong time, and your season can disappear just like that. So talk all the trash you want. Enjoy yourself. Hell, hum a few bars from "Footloose" if you're feeling it. Just be careful. After all, there's a reason Gus didn't e-mail me about that All-Madden championship until after he won.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take a little nap and rest my head on my three Patriots Super Bowl DVDs.

November 2005